Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Glasgow, Scotland.
Aaron Betsky Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Glasgow, Scotland.

What makes for good architecture? Even more fundamentally, what makes something architecture at all? The answer to the first question is easy for those who believe they have a clear rule book, either based on some mode of making that involves a style supposedly connected to a series of design decisions (for instance, Classicism or Modernism), or on a sense of innate rightness of making things based on place (Critical Regionalism), modes of making (Parametricism), or materials and their expression (followers of Louis Kahn). To answer the second question, it certainly helps if you exclude anything that is not “real,” whether it be experimental or speculative drawings, or architecture that appears in film or, these days, as the result of AI computations. But what about if something seems to work as architecture but doesn’t look or behave like a building, wasn’t made by architects and their crews of hierarchically trained workers, or doesn’t present itself in manner that is how we think good architecture should appear?

I was confronted with these questions several times over the last few months as I looked around for architecture that reimagined what we already have and sought to reassemble it into new forms of community and living. Because so much of the material was recycled from cast-offs, it often had a gritty sensibility that was far away from the stone columns, gridded façades, and elegantly crafted details that I was surrounded by in London, Liverpool, England, Brussels, Buffalo, N.Y., and other cities I visited. When I visited the ASIAT park designed by the Belgian firm 51N4E, I even found myself admiring a performance space constructed out of scaffolding and cast-off plastic bags. Where was the architecture there?

Aaron Betsky

The question became even more relevant to me when I went to Glasgow, Scotland to visit the Baltic Street Playground, a project designed, if that is the right word, by Assemble, the London-based architecture collective about which I am writing a book. My first reaction when I arrived at the gates of the Baltic Street Adventure Playground, to give the site its full name, was to look for the buildings. What I found instead were renovated construction shacks, mounds of dirt, treehouses reached by ropes and ladders, stick assemblies of uncertain purpose, and, even on that cold and rainy day, squealing kids running around with gleeful abandon and little supervision I could see. It was, in other words, as close to anarchy and non-architecture as I could imagine.

I was immediately reminded of the abandoned parts of Glasgow where near-feral children make their own worlds in Douglas Stuart’s novels, like Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo. Those take place in neighborhoods similar to Dalmarnock, where the playground is located, but on the other side of the Clyde River. Their stories are set during the 1980s, but little seems to have changed other than the fact that quite a few of the poor families now can trace their origins to Poland or other Eastern European countries rather than Ireland.

As I toured around the few acres of the site, constructed starting in 2014 on the remains of a former church, I started to notice if not order, then at least some logic to the playground. The kids, aged between six and 12, all wore safety vests to identify them as having checked in when they arrived, but otherwise were engaged in running, playing, reading, and even helping tend a small vegetable garden. Even when they seemed to have been left to their own devices, every time they were about to do something rash, an adult volunteer somehow emerged not to stop them, but to either help them or ask them whether they really wanted to go there. Meanwhile, the smell of food began to overtake the entrance area, where other neighborhood volunteers were cooking up lunch for anyone and everyone who wanted or needed it. The kids paid me no mind. They were too busy building their own little worlds.

Aaron Betsky

The playground began when the organizers of the Commonwealth Games’ cultural events asked Assemble to submit a proposal for an art project that would be funded as part of a much larger construction efforts for the 2014 edition of the Games, which were held in Glasgow. Instead of proposing an object, the architects went asking residents and activists around East Glasgow, where part of the sporting event was to be held, as to what could be of use. They found Robert and Alan Kennedy, brothers working as neighborhood activists in the few streets referred to as Dalmarnock. Together, they developed the idea for a place where local kids would be free to play, rather than being restricted to “correct” activities closely supervised by professionals in play yards with “age appropriate” equipment. The Kennedys believed that kids should be free to explore, test, and define their own world with as little intervention as possible. They also wanted the playground to be a hub for community activities which, over time, came to mean not only some social services, but also the regular provision of food in this still extremely impoverished area.

Assemble responded by working on the site piece by piece, starting with defining a few distinct zones for different activities and making use of obvious assets such as the trees on the site. They created a mound at the northern edge of the park and clustered the prefabricated shacks at the opposite side, where they also made the entrance. Though the area is fenced in, the Kennedys realize that neighborhood kids (often older than the target users) sneak in at times; they encourage them to just not destroy what is there.

Aaron Betsky

As the kids began to use the playground, they defined their own paths, asked the staff for help or materials to make their own shelters or some gathering spots, and worked directly with Assemble members to design and build others. The structures are almost all constructed out of recycled materials and resemble what you might find in other places where kids play: tire swings, campground-like gatherings, forts, or pipes through which you can crawl if you are small enough. Watching these structures in full use (the Kennedys have tallied up to 500 users a day coming in and out of the playground) was infectious and delightful. The place exudes pure fun.

So is it architecture? If you look carefully, you can see Assemble’s design decisions in the zoning and sequencing of the different parts and structures. You can also note some of the firm’s compositional acumen in the way the play sculptures are put together. Little flourishes such as snake-like patterns or temple-like forms hint at more deliberate design. But that is not the only way in which the Baltic Street Playground is architecture. What Assemble, the Kennedys, the local volunteers, and the kids did together was to explore, work with (often through play and experimentation), and then redesign the site into its own reality. There is design here in the logic of how the pieces are used and made, but also in how they appear. You might have to peer closely or play hard to find out how that architecture works, and it is changing all the time, but it is there.

I do not mean to over-romanticize the playground. The major reason why it is so rough is because it is part of the life of a community living in or near poverty, in which it is one of the few outlets kids have to have fun and everybody can eat. As the kids age out, some of them come back to volunteer, but most find themselves in the hard life East Glasgow has to offer. From that perspective, this architecture is rough, incomplete, and maybe not even worthy of the name. Out of necessity, however, the Baltic Street Playground is a moment of pure joy and beauty, however hardscrabble, that reaffirmed for me the importance of place making, material exploration and assembly, and many of the other basic aspects of what I think architecture is in a manner I have not seen anywhere else in a long time.

This article has been updated.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more: The latest from columnist Aaron Betsky includes looks at the work of adaptive reuse specialists Superuse Studios, a recent Supreme Court ruling's impact on architecture, and LUMA Arles in France.